I didn’t honestly know much about Asian elephants and their situation before our trip to Anantara Golden Triangle to take part in their elephant researcher program. As our trip got closer, several blogger friends talked to me about a video they had seen of baby elephants being tortured in order for their mahouts to ride them. The graphic video certainly left me with a lot of questions, most nagging was if riding an elephant in Thailand was ethical.
Part of our elephant researcher program included sitting down on our first evening with Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) founder John Roberts and a team from Think Elephants International to discuss what we’d be seeing and doing over the next week. I no doubt surprised John and the team with some hard hitting questions. What Tim and I learned from working with the wonderful folks at Think Elephants International and GTAEF during our stay has been beyond thought provoking and has become a regular topic of conversation as we still try to sort out how it all left us feeling. That’s probably why this is one of the most challenging posts I’ve written to date…
Captive Elephants and the History of Mahout-ing
One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with was seeing captive elephants. My parents owned horses when I was a kid, and Tim and I have rode camels in Jordan, so I wasn’t expecting elephants to be much different. When you see horses, they are fenced in a pasture. The camels roam the Arabian desert freely, though always return to their owners because they know that is where their food comes from. That’s because both horses and camels have been domesticated by humans.
What does that mean exactly? Dictionary.com defines domestication as “the process whereby a population of living organisms is changed at the genetic level, through generations of selective breeding, to accentuate traits that ultimately benefit humans.”
Elephants have never been domesticated, but because even thousands of years ago they were recognized for their intelligence and learning abilities, they were trained for domestic purposes. Kings first used elephants to help fight wars through the dense jungles. Over time, elephants came to be used in the logging industry to destroy their own environment and eventually causing flooding to treeless areas.
It wasn’t until 1988 when Thailand suffered a disastrous flood and the worst in a century that the government realized exactly the harm that they were doing and on January 10, 1989 logging was banned. While undoubtedly a very wise choice as wild Asian elephants populations had greatly declined and deforestation caused the loss of lives and homes, the logging ban put about 20,000 captive Asian elephants and their mahouts out of work.
It was at this time that tourism started to boom in Thailand and mahouts realized they could earn a living through elephant tourism activities.
So Why Not Just Release Elephants Back to the Wild?
If only it were that simple. Something undoubtedly agreed upon by John Roberts and every single person we interacted with at GTAEF and Think Elephants International is that we’d all like nothing more than to see every elephant live out its days as a wild elephant of its own free will. But there simply isn’t room for all of the Asian elephants.
The biggest threat to the Asian elephant are the loss of their habitat and the continually growing human population in tropical Asia. According to the WWF, “about 20% of the world’s human population lives in or near the present range of the Asian elephant”. The natural habitat is dwindling and migratory routes are cut off because of human settlements. As a result, elephant populations are small and unable to mingle.
The Evolution of GTAEF
When John Roberts first started the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, he bought an elephant from a mahout in order to rescue it. A month later, the mahout was back with another elephant. It was at that point that John realized he needed a much bigger plan. Rescuing a few elephants from begging on the streets would only be helping those few elephants.
Now GTAEF helps elephants and their mahouts by providing jobs for both, education for mahouts’ children, and even their wives have opportunities to earn income and help support the family and elephant. Because captive Asian elephants have never been domesticated and their DNA strands remain the same as their wild counterparts, the scientists at Think Elephants International are able to study elephant cognitive and social behaviors that would otherwise be near impossible through trying to observe wild Asian elephants.
GTAEF does not buy any elephants. They simply provide a home for both the elephant and the mahout family. The mahout is free to decide which activities his elephant will participate in and both the family and elephant are well cared for.
As a result of these forward thinking initiatives at GTAEF and the financial support of Anantara, important strides are being made in teaching mahouts positive reinforcement techniques, providing education so that children of mahouts can have other career opportunities, and in understanding elephant behaviors that can in turn help with conservation efforts.
About 95% of Thailand’s captive elephants (there are around 2000 total) are privately owned. They are quite valuable, estimated at around 2 million baht (about $60,000 US) per elephant and are quite expensive to care for. Most simply put, without work in elephant tourism mahouts would have no means to care for their elephants.
Circling back to the aforementioned video of baby elephants being tortured and that these tourism activities promote cruelty, well…it isn’t black and white. Clearly the elephant in the video is being tortured, but this doesn’t mean that all elephants are tortured. Think about how some people torture and beat dogs…and horses…and chickens…and probably camels. There are jackasses no matter where in the world you go. Thai people are intrinsically known for being kind and humane. And their elephants are simply too valuable to abuse.
Chains and the Bullhook
Unlike domesticated dogs, cats, horses, and even camels, captive elephants are still wild animals and most would likely be able to survive if released back into the wild (sadly, because of the logging there just isn’t space for them all though). Elephants are extremely strong and they have also live in a social structure. Captive elephants living in camps are living in unnatural herds and fights can break out. One elephant could easily kill or very badly injure another. They could also kill or very badly injure people. Because of this, mahouts use several tools to help train and control their captive elephants.
One thing I couldn’t get used to, though came to understand, was the elephants being chained. But they are wild animals and without the chains, they could seriously injure themselves or one another. Elephants are so strong, there are few things that can actually contain an elephant, like an electric fence would contain a horse or a fenced in yard would contain a dog. The chains should be long enough to give the elephants ample room to maneuver and the elephants should get plenty of exercise each day.
The bullhook probably looks like the most cruel tool, but when used properly it is the equivalent of carrying a knife or other form of protection. When we went dog sledding and on a snowmobile safari in Svalbard, it was necessary to carry a high-powered rifle in case a polar bear were to attack. The bullhook can be used similarly should something go wrong when working with an elephant.
Safe Elephant Tourism Activities
If you do decide to take part in elephant tourism activities, the camp you select should be done so carefully. There are a number of elephant tourism activities that are both safe for the elephant to take part in and ethical for you to do.
Elephant painting, where the elephants uses its trunk to hold a paintbrush and create a work of art for you to take home is a perfectly safe activity. The elephant’s trunk is an elongation of their upper lip and contains around 40,000 muscles but no bones. They use their trunk like a hand to pick up things, feel, throw dirt on themselves, and even put food into their mouths. Using their trunk to hold a paintbrush and paint is a natural action they can do with their trunks.
One of the most enjoyable elephant activities we did was dining with baby elephants. We had a private dinner prepared on-site by a chef and served by wait staff to our table in a tree house-like structure at the Anantara Golden Triangle baby elephant camp. While our dinner was being prepared, we fed three baby elephants sugar cane. Greedy little buggers, they’d hold four or five pieces with their trunks while munching on another stick. Their mahouts couldn’t chop up the sugar cane fast enough! As we ate, the elephants played and did what elephants do – tossing dirt onto their backs and curiously touching everything in sight with their trunks.
And we did decide to ride elephants, which can also be a perfectly safe elephant activity when done properly. Riding at Anantara Golden Triangle is done after completing the Mahout Experience program in which you learn commands, how to ride on the neck bareback without the chair, and positive reinforcement.
For more safe elephant tourism activities, read Elephant Encounters at Anantara Golden Triangle.
Activities that are not safe for elephants to take part in are things that make them do behaviors unnatural to them, like performing head stands where they are forced to stand on their two front legs. Mahouts that have to eat their lunch on their elephant are also sign of an unethical camp that forces their elephants to work long hours.
How You Can Help
The reality is that in as little as 50 years, the Asian elephant will probably be extinct. It’s sad to think that in our lifetime, these gentle giants will cease to walk the earth. But there are some things you can do to help:
If you’re headed to Asia and riding an elephant is on your bucket list, you don’t have to scratch it off. But, I would encourage you to educate yourself on the issues and be selective in where you chose to take part in elephant tourism activities. Do your research and please visit places like Anantara Golden Triangle, where your tourism dollars directly benefit not only the rescued elephants there but are also important in the much larger picture of elephant conservation.
Don’t buy ivory products. The illegal poaching of male elephants (only males grow tusks in the Asian elephant population) for the illegal ivory trade is still a huge problem and threat to the survival of Asian elephants. So as tempting as it might be to own your very own piece of ivory, find a different souvenir – or better yet, experience – to spend your money on.
Make a tax deductible donation to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. 100% of your donation goes directly to the project.
Stay at any Anantara in Thailand. Even if the remote and lush green mountains of Northern Thailand aren’t your ideal holiday, you can head to the beautiful Thai beaches at Anantara Koh Samui, have a remote escape a la Leonardo Dicaprio in The Beach at Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan, visit one of Thailand’s most famous islands at Anantara Phuket, or even explore bustling Bangkok at Anantara Bangkok Riverside or Anantara Sathorn. No matter which of Anantara’s 12 (as of January 2014) Thailand properties you choose, you have the option of as least $1 per night of your stay being donated to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
To learn more about the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and their projects, visit their website. To learn more about the research studies being conducted by Think Elephants International, visit their website.